A Chinese fighter jet performed an “unnecessarily aggressive manoeuvre” near a US military aircraft that was flying over the South China Sea last week, the Pentagon said on Tuesday.
The US Indo-Pacific Command released video footage of the incident, which it said happened on Friday, as US defence secretary Lloyd Austin was on his way to the region for a visit with stops in Japan, Singapore and India.
It was the latest in a number of similar encounters and comes at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. China’s military has repeatedly rebuffed US efforts to arrange a meeting between Austin and his Chinese counterpart, including one that could have taken place this week.
US military officials have accused China’s People’s Liberation Army pilots of increasingly reckless behaviour in the region, including an incident in December when a Chinese fighter jet flew within six metres of a US military aircraft operating in the South China Sea.
A US defence department spokesperson said the Chinese fighter jet came within 400ft (about 121 metres) of the nose of the aircraft.
After the Chinese pilot “flew directly in front of the nose” of the RC-135, the US aircraft was forced “to fly through its wake turbulence”, the US military said.
The plane was “conducting safe and routine operations” in international airspace and would continue to do so “wherever international law allows”, the Pentagon added.
China, which claims most of the South China Sea as well as Taiwan, frequently accuses the US of endangering peace in the region. Washington argues its military operations uphold the international rules-based order against threats and coercion.
Last week’s incident highlights the risks of unintended conflict between Beijing and Washington when diplomatic ties are fraying amid geopolitical and economic tensions.
In 2001, an American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet about 70 miles off the coast of Hainan Island and the US aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing. Relations between the powers plunged in the aftermath of the crash, which resulted in the Chinese military interrogating and detaining the crew.
Biden administration officials have been seeking more meetings with their Chinese counterparts to try to stabilise the relationship with Beijing.
US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo met Chinese commerce minister Wang Wentao last week in Washington, in what was the first senior-level Chinese visit to the US capital since 2020. Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, also recently met Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, in Vienna.
However, China has not agreed to reschedule a visit to Beijing by US secretary of state Antony Blinken. He cancelled a previously planned trip in February after the diplomatic fallout from the shooting down of a Chinese spy balloon over the US.
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